“It’s tonight’s audience we have to be there for”: An interview with Lion King stars Shaun Escoffery and George Asprey after 15 years in their roles
The Lion King first came to the stage 25 years ago. For most of that time – 15 years of it to be precise – Shaun Escoffery and George Asprey have been realising the roles of Mufasa and Scar, respectively, at the Lyceum on London’s West End. It’s a rare thing to occupy a single role for such a long time, so the pair having done so together is quite exceptional, especially given that Escoffery has released a number of his own solo albums in that time and Asprey has amassed an impressive array of film and TV credits. The Upcoming met with the actors to mark the 25th anniversary of The Lion King as a stage musical, and to discuss their achievements.
Hello both, thank you so much for talking to us. I understand you have been in your roles for quite some time!
George Asprey: Yes, it will be 15 years on April 7th.
Did you start at more or less the same time?
Both: Exactly the same time.
GA: The show started [in the UK] in 1999, and we joined in 2008.
What’s it like to embody a character for such a long time? Has the role itself or the approach to it changed over that period?
GA: It’s funny, isn’t it? Some people might see staying in the same role for so long as a negative; for me it’s immensely freeing. We know the characters so well, and we know each other so well that we are able to forget about the lines, forget about the movements and just concentrate on tiny little, maybe imperceptible changes that we make, experimentation we might do. I can do so freely in the knowledge that Shaun will absolutely go along with any changes I make, and vice versa. To be able to create a bond over such a long period on stage but, more importantly, offstage, to work so closely with someone who has become a best friend for so long, it’s an absolute joy and an absolute honour.
So it’s not just a case of replicating a performance?
GA: As soon as you start replicating performances, that’s when it dies. And, honestly, the audience will know that. The audience knows – I don’t know how they do – the audience knows what the actor is thinking. If the actor’s not in the performance, then the audience won’t be in the performance. The actor has to be 100% engaged for the audience to be 100% engaged.
Shaun Escoffery: Also, as a duo, and as friends, we hold each other accountable. Sometimes we’re on stage and we think, “That wasn’t quite on today” or whatever. We’re always trying to renew, always trying to dissect the characters, we’re always discussing amongst ourselves what kind of nuances we can bring to the character and the way that we play them with each other. On top of that, too, I always say this: it’s a burden but it’s a happy burden. It’s a burden we’re happy to bear because a lot of the people are coming to see the show for the first time. That’s always in the forefront of our mind – that this is fresh for somebody else. We’re always adding new things and taking things out. We know we’re accountable. And it’s fun! We love doing it.
GA: We always think that there’s always going to be that child in the audience who’s been pestering their mum or dad, “How many sleeps until Lion King? How many sleeps until Lion King?” – because it’s that kind of show, the kind you need to book ahead to see. The weight of responsibility and the weight of expectation, it’s not heavy, but it’s acknowledged. It’s up to us to be the best we can be. It doesn’t matter how good we were yesterday, yesterday’s audience aren’t going to see it tonight. It’s tonight’s audience we have to be there for, and we are absolutely conscious of that.
Shaun, has dying, day in day out, one of the most renowned and devastating deaths in family entertainment taken its toll?
SE: Not even in the slightest. You know why? Because, once I’m dead, I’m done for the rest of the show.
GA: I’m so jealous, honestly. His entire act two is four lines of voiceover work, I don’t know what your idea of working is?
SE: I’m crying, “Scar!” as I’m falling backwards, thinking, “I’m going to eat my lunch now.”
GA: Honestly, he’s falling back and, I swear to god, sometimes I’m sure he’s smiling at me.
SE: I am smiling at him. No, it hasn’t taken its toll at all.
GA: In all seriousness, though, the reaction from the audience sometimes is quite extraordinary. Crying of course and applause sometimes, applause that comes out of a moment of such heightened emotion. The audience just has to do something, react in some way. It’s an extraordinary moment, and the opportunity to kill Shaun eight times a week is one I take gladly.
SE: He loves it.
GA: I take it very seriously.
SE: There’s times when I’m falling back that I can see the glee in his face.
Do you think you’re going to kill Shaun for another 15 years? Any plans for the future?
GA: Well in 15 years time, I think the Zimmer frame might get in the way. But Scar does have a stick, so that’s rather good. Do you know what? I think it’s important not to think long-term into the future, because we have to be so in-the-moment, literally. We talk about this together, we take it one show at a time. Neither of us, even after 15 years, have a god-given right to play the roles that we do; we have to deserve the roles that we hold. The only way we can do that is by, every single night, being as good as we can possibly be. We do know we’re in the roles until May 2024. After that, we don’t know. I hope we can keep going, but it’s by no means a given, and it’s up to us to be as good as we can be every single night to ensure it.
It’s a physical job, and you’ve done it for such a long time – it’s as long as an athlete might expect their career to be. You must have to look after yourselves well?
SE: Our physiotherapist, he once described us as performing athletes, and I found that to be quite apt. If you approach it with that mindset, you’re forced to eat right, sleep properly, go to the gym, keep yourself fit.
GA: We take our physical fitness extremely seriously. We both train Brazilian jiu-jitsu – we even do it on stage between shows. We’ll finish a show, go upstairs, get into our gis, put mats down on stage and start rolling around. It’s not just physical fitness, as Shaun said, it’s nutrition, eating clean, intermittent fasting, cold showers, breathing techniques. As I said, we have a responsibility to the audience, and we have to do everything we can do to be as good as we can. Part of that is, obviously, looking after ourselves physically. If you’re not at your physical optimum, you can’t perform the role to the best of your ability – vocally, as well. It’s all part and parcel of the job, it’s not just what you do on stage.
SE: Eight shows a week, sometimes nine. We have to look after ourselves.
GA: I mean, it’s important to remember that we’re not coal miners or something. We dress up and wear far too much make-up for a living. We don’t take ourselves too seriously in that respect, and we don’t imagine that we have the hardest jobs in the world. But the job that we do have, it’s important to be prepared to be at our optimal level when we have to execute it.
One final question: do you think you could perform each other’s roles tonight with accomplishment, and enjoy it? Are you that familiar with each other and each other’s characters?
SE: I’m familiar, but there’s so many nuances to the Scar track that I would make a complete hash of it, to be honest.
GA: Shaun would also have to work in act two and I don’t know how he’d take that.
SE: I don’t have the stamina for that.
GA: In honesty, there’s no way I could bring to the role what Shaun brings to the role. Shaun embodies qualities in himself, as a man, that are the qualities that Mufasa has. Also, if people heard me sing They Live in You, they may well leave at the interval. I think it’s probably the best bet that we stick to our roles, but, honestly, the idea of dying at the end of act one and staying in my dressing room with a coffee and a jiu-jitsu magazine really appeals.
SE: Also, the way George plays and embodies Scar is second to none, so I would just leave it alone, myself.
It was a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.
The Lion King is on at the Lyceum Theatre. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.